pseudopodium
. . . Dawkins

. . .

Sweet Gene Vincet

Paul McEnery's genetic programming remains unaltered by me and the Orrs I rode in on:

Orr is a world class point-misser. Ridley's story is as convincing a piece of post-Dawkins biology as you can find, and for that matter, he's not saying anything that isn't bloody obvious when you think about it. Granted competition, some version of altruism will emerge inevitably as a strategy. Which kinda goes without saying, since altruism has emerged, and therefore must have present some sort of adaptive advantage.

Orr's criticism is one of those "romantic liberal attachment to the enlightenment individual" pieces of crap. Unable to face the brute truth of sociobiology, he skirts it, skates over it, pokes at it, examines it trunk, leg and tail, and does just about anything but call it an elephant. I bet he's a Catholic. And certainly not an anarcho-socialist.

NB: "But these theoretical worries pale in comparison to the empirical problems besetting tit-for-tat. Animals just don't seem to do it. With a few exceptions, experiments have simply failed to find tit-for-tat--or any related form of reciprocity--in nature."

Um, exactly what the book does in fact establish. Or rather, slightly more complex versions. Vervet calls. Chimp meat eating. Fish who investigate danger with first one, then the other getting closer. The wolf who leaves the pack to investigate. And so on. Plus Orr's rather annoying moment when he can't see that selfish genes would like social cooperation. The numbskull can't grasp that it's the distribution of selfish genes across first a family, then a tribe, that leads to any form of cooperation, like the bloody non-breeding ants and bees.

Ridley only gets weak when he gets up to the more complex levels of business, but it's a typical weakness of not taking his theoretical basis seriously enough. Taking it the extra step myself, I come up with:

Big businesses work on linear logic, nature works on non-linear logic, therefore the approximations of business wind up with a mess. The only method to bring reciprocity back into the game is regulatory organs with their own stupid linearity so that the interaction between them restores non-linearity.
Um, and so on.

As a morbidly religious child, I found no behavior untainted by the sin of pride; as a complacently carousing adult, I find no sustainable way to remain purely acquisitive. Social impulses are neither strictly selfish nor strictly altruistic. I'm content to rest at that rather than insist on the validity of a Personal Darwin.

To me, biological reductionism seems as transparent an ideology-rescue here as when eighteenth-century slaveholders called rape betterment of the primitive races.

As transparent but not nearly as evil, and so I'll leave you to it -- with thanks for your answer to Ridley's free market bias. (On second thought, with thanks for the whole thing. Given JP&SP's findings, we need all the "It's not really altruism..." defenses we can get.)

I'd still rather my political world wasn't divided between those who deny the nonselfish and those who are out to kill us, but maybe secular Jesuitism wouldn't be that nifty either.

. . .

A besetting evil of popular science is its literalization of figurative language. "Light's both a wave and a particle? Freaky!" "That's right, Jimmy. Let's freak!"

A begetting evil, too. Cooperation pays off with publicity, which leads to sales, which leads to new contracts, which leads to....

Foremost among the snags of this sociobiological language is the equivocal use of words like ‘selfish’, ‘altruistic’, ‘spite’ and ‘manipulate’, a use which not only suggests psychological egoism to the surrounding peasants, but clearly at times misleads the writers themselves....

‘We are survival machines robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.’

[Dawkins] now comments ‘That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth, provided certain key words are defined in the particular way favoured by biologists.’ (This caveat can apply only to gene and selfish, since the other words have not been discussed. The ones that really need attention, of course, are machine, vehicle and blindly programmed.)
- "Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism", Mary Midgley

Survival isn't a value judgment. It's merely the stark fact of survival. A gene isn't Roderigo Borgia, scheming toward that ultimate prize. It's not even Sir Toby Belch staggering towards bed. A gene is an imperfectly replicated or shuffled blueprint which might sometime be replicated or shuffled imperfectly.

And that's all that's needed by way of explanation.

Evolutionary theory liberated biological science from a priori notions of hierarchy and final causes, and from the distortions they inevitably introduce.

But from its first expression, interpeters have tried to bring those notions back, to change Darwin's descent into ascent, to mistake a stereotype as the grail at the end of a quest. By turning approximate analogies into rigid allegories, Dawkins became recidivism's latest success.

Responses

Lawrence La Riviere White:
As for your on-going evolutionary biology rant, let me say I've never quite gotten the appeal. From the start, it looked just like a hermeneutic, an interpretative key. Hey, look how many things this story explains! But it doesn't seem any more scientific than Augustine's On Christian Doctrine (& not to knock Augustine here, though I would want to have to read the whole book). For my money, a lot of the gene talk has about the same status at this time, only it has the advantage of promising the big hard-science pay-off, when we get to match up trait to gene. Or did the bank call back & already said the funds were not available on that check?
And wmr:

Too many people fail to see the difference between a research strategy and an explanation. Yes, much of science looks like a just-so story, but that's because theories are designed to take into account the facts known at the time. Newton's theory of gravity probably looked like a just-so story to his contemporaries; after all, he used the detailed observations of other astronomers and his theory had to "explain" them. What distinguished his theory from others was that it predicted new observations--Uranus and Neptune.

In a similar fashion, facile explanations of biological oddities as "survival of the fittest" should be distinguished from research that asks "how could this feature aid the spread of the genes involved?". I wonder if it would be better for biology teachers to admit that, though the theory of evolution is the considered choice of professionals in the field, it may be superceded by a better theory sometime in the future, then continue on to stress that Intelligent Design is not a candidate and point out its flaws.

Well, "the theory of evolution" seems secure enough in general terms. I'd merely suggest that the honest answer to your question is almost always "We don't know. Maybe it didn't." If certainty and uncertainty are allowed to become the terms of battle, fundamentalism wins.

A reader takes the voice of Mistress Sexy Gene:

It's main utility, it being the altruism thing, is it deflates the gassy balloon of the sacred individual, truth-shocks the ego back to its place in the peanut gallery. On the other side of your rantlet - the almost total severance of the sex-urge from its repro-purposing (accidental and arbitrary as it is, in a volitional end/means sense). It (feel-good sex) exists because without it we wouldn't. That's genes, that's mechanism, that's what's up with that. Courtship, companionship, tits and ass in advertising, all that attends, but doesn't accompany. It's merely goo-gaw, ornate gleam, the real ceremony's at the ovum wall.

I nod with pleasure, but more to the music than the libretto. Other species reproduce without apparent feel-good; I know that not all feel-good results in reproduction; I've been assured it's possible for human beings to be reproduced without feel-good having entered at any point. Given this plethora of "exceptions," isn't it safer to suggest that the apparent replacement of estrus with feel-good has influenced (or been helped along by) some other peculiarities of our species than to insist that feel-good was invented to keep the species alive?

. . .

Social Darwinians find themselves with a self-evidently secure norm that still for some reason needs to be policed, defended, and encouraged. (Here's where you might apply that volume of Judith Butler, by the way.) Eternal vigilance is the price of determinism.

Paradoxical but familiar, right? As in: "Our God is all-knowing and all-powerful and rewards us greatly here and in the hereafter. And this is why we feel persecuted and threatened with eradication."

What would it mean to be "guided" by a theory of necessity? To "follow" the inevitable?

That's called chasing your own tail. And success tastes like ass.

Why should people want to formulate a unenforceable "law" in the first place? What gives that meme its competitive edge?

As John Ashcroft can tell you, the benefit is the latitude it gives the formulator. When the nominally "unnatural" or "prohibited" is in fact thoroughly part of quotidian existence, we have our pick of targets, and we can pick them off at our leisure.

Thus we might, for example, note homosexuality as a distressing anomaly while letting other nonprocreative sexual experience off with a wink and a smile.

But what if we stay logically consistent, and treat masturbation, oral-genital contact, and the female orgasm as equally abhorrent unto the Gene our Lord?

Again, that has a familiar ring. And haven't I read some secular exegeses that came perilously close to "Women Were Designed For Homemaking"? (via reading/writing)

Treating evolution as if it had a "design" has proven to be almost as pernicious an error as straight theocratic denial. Dawkins's flavor is just the backside of Creationism, with Mean Gene blasphemously enthroned as the intelligent designer. I'm not inclined to raise hosannas.

Responses

Richard Dawkins was my tutor at college, and man, selfish was *not* the word . .
Social-Dawkinsism. First there was the red-clawed eliminators, T.Rex and the pitcher plant, then the social triumphalist peace in the agora, then out of that peace the newly red-handed former-eliminated began their mini-tooth-and-claw, masked as abstract economic theory, then (now) they (them) wish to play fit-or-be-fitted-out. But that that Darwin's bloody pragmatic homily can be used by assholes - that doesn't mean it's shit does it?
It's a Gödelian matter of existence being bigger than any explanation of existence. Nature is red in tooth and claw at dinnertime. After dinner, however, Nature cracks open a brew and watches "The Osbornes" even as you and I.
Excellent stuff, but would it have killed you to end with a Lovecraftian reference to babbling idiot gods, nodding their heads to the insane tootlings of unwholesome flutes?

Let's try it and see!

. . .

Addendum: No Single Reason in the World

Readers inquire:

God the Ambivalent hises up his tartan petticoats, hauls out his schlong, and pisses on the beach every once in a while, to search for buried treasure. Hence these bluffs and cliffs, out of which the rockin' bones prick. (See, for instance, "Rockin' bones, rockin' bones, rock rock rock it" by The Rockin' Bones; or don't.) I think I was trying to talk about evolution, was it?
Do the pseudopodium form at different parts of the amoebae body?

Usually, yes.

My recent series on the origin of evolutionary sociology nattered on mercilessly; I, like you, would welcome a change of subject. But self-publication must go where self-indulgence directs, and, you know, other folks are still talking about it, and I recently had my attention drawn to a phenomenon I wished I'd included, and, oh dear, oh well, I apologize to you and to my best intentions.

To recap a bit: When a respected compeer questioned the evolutionary value of homosexuality, I answered "Who needs one?" Sex as aggression, sex as social duty, and sex as friendly gesture are all fully capable of baby-making, and homosexual lust doesn't interfere with them. Heterosexual lust, as usually defined, is therefore not necessary for reproduction. Just look at the Hapsburgs.

But there's another common trait that's 100% effective at eliminating baby-making: infertility.

The human Y chromosome consists of decaying debris. Its presence triggers maleness, but its contents are mostly ignored. And they mostly have to be. Senile and solipsistic, the Y genes don't take part in recombination, and so there's no way for their basic structures to be reinforced over time. Genetic rot and drop-offs are common.

Among the few bodily traits blueprinted in the Y are some which help bring spermatozoa fully to term, so to speak, pampering the little dears till they grow up to be big and strong like daddy's. When chromosome rot strikes out that genetic mapping, the eventual result is someone who's indisputably male but almost always infertile, with few and immobile sperm.

How many offspring will an infertile man's genes selfishly acquire? None considerably less than the average number of offspring among my gay and lesbian acquaintances. That's about as little support from natural selection as possible.

And yet a significant percentage of men are infertile. Why is this permitted?

If you want to, you can try to work out some convoluted untestable Rube Dawkins explanation of how it might actually benefit the species.

I have a simpler, and thus preferable, answer. It's permitted because natural selection and genetic reproduction are too dumb and too hamstrung by earlier choices to be able to prevent it. Too many changes would need to be coordinated. Oh, maybe if we're left to breed undisturbed (with a pinch of radiation) for another hundred million years or so, a row of cherries will line up. How likely is that?

Admittedly, this is reductio ad absurdum. But I believe that most interesting aspects of human behavior are closer to that reductio ad absurdum than to the bill of Darwin's finch.

I can't prove my belief. I don't even want to prove my belief. I do want evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary sociologists to disprove my belief before they leech funding and publicity from legitimate science. Wild speculation from iffy evidence can be a beautiful thing in a creative writing department.

Responses

Infertile man is not permit, no. He is weeded out and all genes of him are not spread unto next generation. But think now, is his infertility controlled by his genes? Or is it function of his use of saran wrap for lunchbox, inhalation of rubbish fume from factory, imbibation of excess of absinthe or what have you. There is always environment factors to be consider. Best weeshes, Ricardo Dorkanvilla
Different type of infertility. They're all good.
okay smart guy, why do men have tits? huh? huh?
Men have tits to make Iggy Stooge possible.
why isn't elvis god?

Hoo boy. Why isn't the sky blue? Doesn't a bear shit in the woods? What am I, the IM question answerer?

That particular blasphemy wasn't mine.

I'm glad to hear it.

More topically, a long, playful message from professional speculator Paul McEnery unexpectedly reinforced my dominant thesis when I found the negative reviews of Steve Jones's innocuous works splitting between snubbed creationists and snubbed evolutionary psychologists and when I found Steve Jones espousing my dominant thesis.

Try checking out recent research on the evolution of the Y-chromosome, particularly Nature. 2003 Jun 19;423(6942):873-6. The Y-chromosome is actually able to stave off deterioration through a process of gene conversion, which is basically a form of self-recombination. A dandy evolutionary strategy if there ever was one...

The research reported in that issue was what started me off again, actually. It's great science: painstaking data collection; ingenious pattern-tracing; reasonable contextualizing with plenty of mystery left to entice wonderful stuff.... What I instead tried to apply above for entertainment purposes only were techniques of crummy science as I see them popularly applied: an assumption that for every phenomenon there must be an "evolutionary" justification conveniently tucked just up the explainer's ass.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.